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close this bookHandbook for Emergencies - Second Edition (UNHCR, 1999, 414 p.)
close this folder7. Coordination and Site Level Organization
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentCoordination
View the documentOrganization at the Site Level
View the documentKey References
View the documentAnnexes





1. Coordination can be defined as the harmonious and effective working together of people and organizations towards a common goal.

2. Good coordination should result in:

i. Maximum impact for a given level of resources;

ii. Elimination of gaps and overlaps in services;

iii. Appropriate division of responsibilities;

iv. Uniform treatment and standards of protection and services for all the beneficiaries.

3. For effective coordination appropriate approaches and structures will need to be put in place at the various levels. Coordination requires good management and clearly defined objectives, responsibilities and authority.

Coordination is not free: it has costs in terms of time and other resources needed to make it work.

Coordination of the UN Response to Refugee Emergencies

4. Within the UN system the responsibility for refugees lies with UNHCR. Therefore, when there is a refugee emergency, UNHCR is the UN organization responsible for coordinating the response of the UN system to the emergency.

Mechanisms for Coordination in Refugee Emergencies

5. Effective coordination is the result of sound management. Coordination mechanisms set up without the establishment of clear objectives and assignment of responsibility and authority will be ineffective. Coordination must be based on good information exchange, particularly with the site level, otherwise it may even be counterproductive.

6. Mechanisms for coordination include:

i. International and Regional instruments and agreements which define responsibilities and roles at the global (and sometimes regional or country) level;

ii. Memoranda of Understanding and exchange of letters with other agencies, and agreements with implementing partners and host governments, defining responsibilities and roles at the situational level;

iii. A coordinating body;

iv. Sectoral committees as necessary;

v. Regular meetings;

vi. Reporting and information sharing;

vii. Joint services and facilities, for example, vehicle repair services, communications, and a joint staff security group;

viii. Codes of conduct for organizations working in humanitarian emergencies.

7. In refugee emergencies UNHCR should take the lead to ensure effective coordination if this is not already ensured, including establishing the coordinating body.


Whatever the implementing arrangements, a single coordinating body should be established for the operation - for example, a task force, commission, or operations centre.

The coordinating body will provide a framework within which the implementation of the programme can be coordinated and management decisions taken. The coordinating body should have clearly defined and well promulgated responsibility and authority.

9. The elements of a coordinating body, including membership and functions are described in Annex 1. Tips for running meetings, including coordinating meetings are given in Annex 2.

10. Where a coordinating structure does not already exist, UNHCR should, in cooperation with the government, take the lead in setting up the coordinating body and mechanism. This is a crucial component of UNHCR's leadership role. The coordinating body may be set up and chaired by the government with strong support from UNHCR, or be co-chaired by the government and UNHCR, or be chaired by UNHCR alone.

11. The membership of the coordinating body should include government ministries and departments, as well as other UN agencies, NGOs and other concerned organizations. It is important to coordinate the activity of all NGOs - whether they have entered into an implementing agreement with UNHCR or not. In a large scale emergency with a number of actors, the coordinating body could become unwieldy. However, it should still be possible to ensure some degree of representation or participation on the coordinating body by all actors either directly, or on sectoral committees, or through close working partners who are represented on the coordinating body.

12. The coordinating body should hold regular, formal meetings during which overall progress is reviewed and plans adjusted. These meetings should be complemented by informal contacts with members of the coordinating body.

13. When required, the coordinating body should create sectoral committees, for example for health and nutrition. Such committees will be responsible for coordinating implementation in that sector and reporting back to the coordinating body. They could also play an important part in the development of specific standards for the delivery of assistance. When the operation is sufficiently large, a sectoral committee could be coordinated by a UNHCR sector coordinator.

14. A coordinating body can also be of considerable value when new agencies arrive, both in integrating their assistance in the overall programme and with practical administrative arrangements and briefing.

15. Coordination must be based on good information exchange, particularly with the site level. The framework for the organization and coordinating mechanisms at the site level is likely to broadly reflect that established centrally. To get information passed vertically between central level and site level can be as hard as getting information passed between organizations. Each organization should be responsible for ensuring that there is good communication between its staff at site level and centrally, and that important information is then passed on to the coordination body.

Coordination of the UN Response to Complex Emergencies

16. A complex emergency can be defined as:

a humanitarian crisis in a country, region or society where there is a total or considerable breakdown of authority resulting from internal or external conflict, and which requires an international response that goes beyond the mandate or capacity of any single agency and/or the ongoing UN country programme.

17. Likely characteristics of complex emergencies include:

i. A large number of civilian victims, populations who are besieged or displaced, human suffering on a major scale;

ii. Substantial international assistance is needed and the response goes beyond the mandate or capacity of any one agency;

iii. Delivery of humanitarian assistance is impeded or prevented by parties to the conflict;

iv. High security risks for relief workers providing humanitarian assistance;

v. Relief workers targeted by parties to the conflict.

18. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), is the UN body charged with strengthening the coordination of humanitarian assistance of the UN to complex emergencies. OCHA has three main functions in this field: coordination of humanitarian response, policy development and advocacy on humanitarian issues.

19. OCHA discharges its coordination function primarily throughout the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) which is chaired by the Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC), with the participation of humanitarian partners1. The IASC ensures interagency decision-making in response to complex emergencies, including needs assessments, consolidated appeals, field coordination arrangements and the development of humanitarian policies.

20. Where there is a complex emergency an individual or agency is appointed to be responsible for the coordination of the UN system response at field level - this individual or agency is designated the "Humanitarian Coordinator".

21. The decision on who to appoint as Humanitarian Coordinator is made by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC).

22. The agency appointed as Humanitarian Coordinator will depend on the nature of the emergency, and comparative existing agency capacity in the region.

23. There are four possible options which are normally used for the coordination of UN assistance in a complex emergency. These are:

i. Resident Coordinator

The Resident Coordinator is the leader of the United Nations country team and is normally the head of UNDP in a particular country. In a complex emergency, the Resident Coordinator may also be designated as the Humanitarian Coordinator.

ii. Lead Agency

One of the UN agencies may be selected to coordinate and this is often the agency which provides the majority of the assistance;

iii. Humanitarian Coordinator

If the emergency is of considerable size a Humanitarian Coordinator may be appointed distinct from the office of the Resident Coordinator and lead agency. The Humanitarian Coordinator normally phases out once the emergency reaches recovery phase and any residual tasks are returned to the Resident Coordinator;

iv. Regional Humanitarian Coordinator

If the emergency affects more than one country a Humanitarian Coordinator having regional responsibilities may be appointed.

1 The full members of the IASC are OCHA (convenor), FAO, IOM, UNDP, UNHCR, WFP, UNICEF, WHO, and there are a number of standing invitees, including the Red Cross movement and NGOs. i. Resident Coordinator

Role of UNHCR and Other UN Agencies in a Complex Emergency

24. In complex emergencies involving refugees, UNHCR will be responsible for protection and assistance activities on behalf of the refugees. UNHCR may also be appointed lead agency, and therefore be responsible for the coordination of the UN response.

25. Whether or not UNHCR is lead agency, the UNHCR Representative remains directly responsible to the High Commissioner on all issues related to the UNHCR country programme as well as policy matters and issues related to UNHCR's mandate.

The protection of refugees must remain the sole prerogative of the High Commissioner.

Organization at the Site Level


26. The framework for the organization and coordinating mechanisms at the site level are likely to reflect broadly those established centrally. However, there is one fundamental difference between the site and central levels: at the site level the refugees themselves should play a major role.

The organization of the refugee community must support and enhance their own abilities to provide for themselves.

27. A clear understanding of the aims and objectives of the emergency operation and proper coordination are even more important at the site level than centrally, for it is here that failures and misunderstandings will directly affect the refugees.

Of particular importance will be the adoption of common standards when a number of organizations are providing similar assistance.

Regular meetings of those concerned are essential. There should be an overall coordinating mechanism chaired by the government authority, UNHCR Field Officer, and/or an operational partner, and this mechanism may be complemented by sectoral committees.

28. Certain activities are interdependent or have a common component and will need particularly close coordination at site level. For example, environmental sanitation measures must be closely coordinated with health services, and the home visiting component of health care with feeding programmes and community services.

29. A rapid changeover of outside personnel can create major problems for site level coordination, though some specialists may obviously be required for short periods. The importance of continuity is proportional to the closeness of contact with the refugees. Operational partners at the site should have a standard orientation and briefing procedure to ensure continuity of action and policy despite changes in personnel.

Community Organization

30. The importance of preserving and promoting a sense of community is stressed in chapters 10 and 12 on community services and site planning. The approach to thinking about and understanding site and community organization should be from the smallest unit - the family - upwards, rather than imposed from the largest unit downwards, which would be unlikely to reflect natural or existing community structures and concerns.

31. The basic planning unit for site organization and management is likely therefore to be the family, subject to traditional social patterns, and distinctive features of the population (e.g. numbers of separated minors, adolescent and women headed households). Larger units for organizational and representational purposes will again follow the community structure. For example, the next level up is likely to be community units of about 80 to 100 people, grouped according to living arrangements, followed by groups of communities of about 1,000 people. Different settlement services are decentralized to these different levels - e.g. water and latrines at household level, and education and health facilities at community and larger levels. The physical layout of the site will have a major influence on social organization.

Generally, the smaller the Settlement the better - the overriding aim should be to avoid high density, large camps.

Community Involvement

32. The refugees must be involved in planning measures to meet their needs and in implementing those measures. The way the community is organized can help ensure that the refugees' specific skills are made use of and that the personnel for services at the site will come from the refugees.

33. There are three levels to the involvement of refugees. The first is in the overall planning and organization, for example the determination of what is the best and culturally most appropriate solution to a problem, given the constraints of the situation. This level requires that the refugees have a social organization within their community that is properly representative. As the previous social structures may have been severely disrupted, this may take time to redevelop but will be important to the success of the emergency operation and for the future of the refugees. Meanwhile, urgent action to meet evident needs must of course be taken.

34. The second level of involvement is in the practical use of the refugees' skills and resources wherever possible for the implementation of the operation. The refugees themselves should run their own community to the extent possible. Where suitably qualified or experienced refugees exist, such as nurses, teachers and traditional health workers, they must obviously be used. Where they do not, outside assistance should ensure that refugees are trained to take over from those who are temporarily filling the gap. Other services include feeding programmes, sanitation, (maintenance and cleaning of latrines, drainage, garbage disposal, vector control, etc.) construction (shelters and communal buildings) education, tracing and general administration. Note that women and adolescents often have the necessary skills but lack the confidence or language skills to come forward - an outreach programme to identify them might be necessary.

35. At the same time, other traditional skills - for example in construction or well-digging -should be harnessed. While specific measures to develop self-reliance will vary with each situation, their aim should always be to avoid or reduce the refugees' dependence on outside assistance. The more successful measures are generally those based on methods and practices familiar to the refugees.

36. The third level is the education of the community on life in their new situation, which may be markedly different from their previous experience. Public health education in such matters as the importance of hygiene in crowded conditions, mother and child care and the use of unfamiliar latrines is an example. As another example, if unfamiliar foods or preparation methods have to be used, immediate practical instruction is essential. Education and guidance of this sort are best given by the refugees themselves (including women and youth), with outside assistance.

Refugee Representation

37. Refugee settlements are not, typically, simple replicas of former community life, and large numbers of refugees may be living temporarily outside their traditional community leadership structures. However, in nearly every emergency, some refugee leaders, spokespersons, or respected elders will be present. It will be necessary to define with the community the method of choosing leaders to ensure fair representation and proper participation in both the planning and implementation of the emergency programme. The more the settlement differs from former community life, the more important this action is likely to be to the success of the programme.

However, be aware that some new power structures might emerge, for example through force, and may exercise de facto control over the population, but may not be representative.

38. The system of refugee representation should:

i. Be truly representative of the different interests and sectors of the community, and of both men and women;

ii. Include various levels of representatives and leaders to ensure adequate representation and access for individual refugees;

iii. Avoid unconscious bias, for example on the basis of language. Bear in mind that there is no reason why a refugee should be representative of the community simply because he or she has a common language with those providing outside assistance;

iv. Be based on traditional leadership systems as much as possible but provided these allow proper representation (for example, if the traditional leadership system excludes women, there should nevertheless be women representatives);

v. Be consistent with the physical divisions in the layout of the site.

Key References

A Framework for People-Oriented Planning in Refugee Situations taking account of Women, Men and Children, UNHCR, Geneva, 1992.

Partnership: A Programme Management Handbook for UNHCR's Partners, UNHCR, Geneva 1996.

UNHCR Handbook; People-Oriented Planning at Work: Using POP to Improve UNHCR Programming, UNHCR, Geneva, 1994.


Annex 1 - Elements of a Coordinating Body

Each of the factors listed below would need to be evaluated against the particular context and policy of the host government. At the beginning of the operation UNHCR should secure a suitable meeting room for coordination meetings.


The nature of the coordinating body and its usefulness will be determined partly by its membership.

1. Criteria for participation:

i. Provision of direct services;

ii. Regular attendance at coordination meetings;

iii. Compliance with service guidelines and standards;

iv. Regular financial contributions to coordination mechanism.

2. Other organizations may wish to attend coordination meetings without full participation in the coordination mechanism:

i. Organizations which may choose not to fully participate, e.g. ICRC;

ii. Funding organizations and donor representatives;

iii. Public interest groups;

iv. Military forces.

Functions of the coordination body

1. Meetings.

These may be needed at the central and the site level, and include:

i. Overall coordination meetings, which may be needed daily at the start of an emergency;

ii. Sectoral committee meetings (e.g. health, registration, water);

iii. Conferences.

2. Identification of needed services and soliciting voluntary agencies to assume responsibilities for the provision of these services.

3. Allocation of donated commodities and financial contributions.

4. Guidelines and standards for the provision of services.

5. Orientation of newly arrived agencies.

6. Orientation of incoming staff.

7. Research and documentation.

8. Support for settlement coordination committees.

9. Coordination with agencies outside the country.

10. Information sharing.

11. Fund raising.

Annex 2 - Tips on running a meeting

1. Set clear objectives for the meeting

· Why is the meeting needed and what is the expected outcome? (Communication? Problem-solving? Planning? Decision-making?)

· Who should attend the meeting?

· Should the meeting be formal or informal?

2. Prepare an agenda

· Make a written agenda with clear objectives and approximate timing for each item;

· Ensure that the agenda states why the meeting is needed;

· Make sure the agenda is realistic (not too many items) and sequence the items appropriately;

· Put the difficult, important issues near the beginning (perhaps dealing first with something quick and simple);

· Plan breaks if the meeting is more than 1 hour in length;

· Avoid mixing information sharing and decision-making in the same meeting - hold separate meetings for these functions.

3. Documentation

· Circulate a detailed agenda, list of participants and any background documentation (such as minutes of previous meetings) in advance (but not too far ahead) of the meeting, 2 to 3 days before is best;

· Indicate the time, place and duration of the meeting;

· Prepare audio-visual materials in advance.

4. Seating arrangements

· Choose a circular or rectangular table;

· Avoid a long, narrow table if possible as this makes communication more difficult;

· In an informal setting, a semicircle of chairs facing a flip chart is the best;

· Everyone should be able to see each other;

· Participants should not be too crowded or too far apart.

5. During the meeting

· Start on time;

· Have the participants introduce themselves if they do not know each other;

· Clarify the objective(s) of the meeting and review the agenda and time limits;

· Outline how the meeting will be conducted (methodology);

· Identify the rapporteur or secretary for the meeting;

· Ask the participants if they agree to the agenda and be flexible on minor changes if there is consensus;

· If applicable, review action items of previous meeting(s);

· Make sure you have everyone's attention before opening the meeting.

During the meeting the chairman or facilitator should

· Avoid getting personally involved in the discussions;

· Keep an overall view of the objective(s);

· Do not lose the thread of the argument;

· Stick to the agenda (but be flexible within agenda items);

· Ask for information and opinions;

· Summarize and reformulate key points (have the rapporteur or secretary use the flip chart to record the points as they occur);

· Clarify and elaborate where needed;

· Concentrate on key issues and stop digressions;

· Test for consensus;

· Ensure everyone gets a chance to speak;

· Assign responsibilities and deadlines for agreed tasks (action, responsibility, and date by agenda item);

· Set date, time and place for next meeting;

· Close the meeting on time, on a decided and positive note.

7. After The Meeting

· Keep a record of the meeting. It should include the following basic items:

i. A list of the participants noting those who were invited but did not attend ("apologies" list);

ii. The conclusions, decisions, recommendations and the follow up action required, by agenda item, with the name of the person responsible for action and time frame;

iii. The time, date and place of the next meeting.

Note: working in small groups

Dividing the participants into small groups can be useful in large meetings (more than 12 participants), when discussions are lengthy. Depending on the subject, it can allow in-depth discussion on specific questions and possibly help to solve problems.